Growlin' at the beer bill

A bill long-pursued by the N.C. Beer and Wine Wholesalers Association passed the House on the same day as the group sponsored its annual "Growler" party.

Posted Updated
Mark Binker
RALEIGH, N.C. — Maybe this just gets filed under "odd legislative coincidences."
The North Carolina Beer & Wine Wholesalers has been pushing S 745: Beer Franchise Law Clarifications for the past year. Today, the bill cleared the House Commerce and Job Development Subcommittee on Alcoholic Beverage Control committee before popping onto the House floor and passing 113-1. The same-day vote is hardly unprecedented but is more expeditious than the typical legislative process. 

The bill next goes on to the Senate for a concurrence vote.

After lawmakers finished their work for the day, they got to head over to "The Growler," an annual social/lobbying event (complete with plenty of libation) hosted by ... wait for it ... The North Carolina Beer & Win Wholesalers and two other lobbying groups. Those other groups were Fetzer Strategic Partners, which worked with the wholesalers on the beer franchise bill, and Bone and Associates. 

Less than three hours passed between the vote and the start of the party. 

"It's a coincidence," NC Beer and Wine Wholesalers Executive Director Tim Kent told me. "I reserve the date usually nine months in advance." 

Update: This bill passed the Senate Thursday morning and is off to Gov. Bev Perdue for her signature. 
It is important to note: The Growler has been going on for 22 years and is one of the circle-your-calendar events for the Jones Street crowd. Lawmakers, lobbyists, executive branch types and others who hang about the legislature attend the event. Senate President Pro Tempore Phil Berger was spotted in the crowd tonight along with what looked like enough legislators to form a quorum in either chamber.

The event is not a fundraiser. And groups with business pending before the legislature are allowed to invite lawmakers to big parties, as long as they invite ALL lawmakers and make the party "a public event." (In theory, if you were walking through downtown Raleigh today around 6 p.m., you could have scored a brew and some 'cue even if you've never set foot in the legislative building.) 

Also worth saying: It's unlikely that lawmakers would change their vote in exchange for some good 'cue and a few cold ones. Still, the timing is a bit on the nose.  

"A major piece of legislative always moves at Growler time," said Fred Bone, owner of Bone and Associates. The year the lottery passed, the House vote came on the date of the Growler, he said. "Many times, the budget has been voted on the Growler day," Bone added.

The event has changed over the years. There's still barbecue and beer in abundance. But because of lobbying rules, the event no longer features a bluegrass band, which would constitute "entertainment" under the lobbying reforms passed in the wake of the Jim Black scandal. 

Back before this evening's festivities, Rep. Jaime Boles, R-Moore, told me that S 742 is probably the last alcohol-related bill that he anticipates moving through the House this year. Boles chairs the ABC subcommittee. The beer bill, he said, would not have moved if it weren't a consensus bill among the wholesalers and brewers. (Although, I'm reliably informed the big brewers like Anheuser-Busch more tolerated the bill than gave it a hearty endorsement.)

S 745 does several things that favor wholesalers, middlemen who take beer from producers, collect taxes and fees, and sell it to retailers. The bill makes it harder for beer producers to terminate contracts with wholesalers or impose higher prices on wholesalers with whom they may be having a business dispute. It also says that wholesalers can't wave their protections through franchise agreements with brewers. 

Kent told me earlier in the day that it would ensure that wholesalers could make decisions about how best to serve their retail customers, even if that means loading more beer from smaller brewers. 

The measure was endorsed by the N.C. Brewers Guild, a group of small in-state brewers. And it appears destined to pass, given that the bulk of the measure has already passed the Senate 49-1. 

"It ensures more choices for consumers," Kent said.

And it just so happens, The Growler provided and opportunity for lawmakers, wholesalers and others to toast their successes with some of those choices. 

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